In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for global
empire and the end of the ancient world
Little, Brown £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code
TOM HOLLAND may be more familiar to readers through his
contributions to the media, as the presenter of BBC Radio 4's
series Making History, than through his numerous
publications. In both, however, he has a gift for bringing the past
to life, and a passion for the ancient world.
A bold contention lies at the heart of his most recent work; for
he is intrigued by the factors that enabled the Arabs to succeed
where both Romans and Persians failed, namely how they managed to
create a new Empire: the Islamic world that spread from India to
North Africa and beyond with such lightning speed so soon after the
death of the Prophet Muhammad. They conquered where warring armies,
plague, and earthquakes had failed.
To examine this, Holland has to unpick what went before; so he
undertakes a rattlingly good survey of all the players in the
ancient world. Persians, Romans, Zoroastrians, Jews, and
Christians are examined in turn - with a particularly insightful
exploration into the history of Constantinople - as he analyses the
"precise parabola of their existence".
Then he turns his attention to Islam - and the book's
originality derives from the conviction with which he grasps the
nettle. The electrifying stuff begins. He raises questions about
the provenance and status of the final or current version of the
Qur'an (ratified only in 1924). He examines the origins of
Muhammad's vision of paradise; he details the influences that would
have come from the Prophet's context; he explains where the
"Hadith" came from; and finally - and most controversially - he
uses internal evidence from the Qur'an itself to question where the
revelations took place.
How, for instance, can the locus of Muhammad's revelations be
Arabia when they describe life in a fertile land rather than an
arid wilderness? How can we ignore references to the cave beside
the Dead Sea where Lot is alleged to have taken shelter after the
destruction of Sodom, and which the text claims: "You pass by
morning and night"?
Biblical scholarship has had a firm grasp on the Christian
ima-gination for more than 100 years. Will Islam embrace a
similar discipline? Will this detailed and intricate book be
laughed out of court by friends and enemies alike, or will it open
doors in all our minds, as is surely the author's intention?
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.